Cars: Love ‘em or hate ‘em
Having written this column for CRL for more than three years, it struck me that I had never written about cars. What subject is more “guy stuff” than cars? During my stint in the infantry, three subjects occupied every off-duty conversation among G.I.s: sports, women and cars. And when we were overseas where sports news was hard to come by, women and cars shared equal billing.
The times they have a-changed
It’s almost impossible to imagine, but back in the early 1950s when I first became aware of cars, there were no Toyotas, Hondas, Mazdas, Nissans, Audis or BMWs in the United States. Volkwagens had only just begun to appear. The world had been at war against Japan and Germany only a short time before, the industry of those countries was destroyed, and they had been our mortal enemies for Pete’s sake. Back then, nearly every car on the road in the U.S. of A. was a Chevy, a Ford, a Plymouth, or one of their sister nameplates. Sure, there were Hudsons, Kaisers, Nashes, Studebakers, and a few others, but the Big Three ruled from sea to shining sea. “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” sang Dinah Shore, and “As GM goes, so goes the nation,” later became a cautionary phrase. But this isn’t another gloomy article about the American automotive industry. This is a love story.
The childhood family years
The first car I can remember our family owning was a Nash Rambler. If memory serves (which it rarely does anymore), the front seats folded completely flat so people could sleep in the car. Way back then, sleeping in cars was probably more common than today since they broke down more often. Odd, isn’t it, now that cell phones are ubiquitous our cars don’t break down as much as they used to when we really could use them.
Later, when our family grew to six people, we had a Ford Ranch Wagon. My brother and I got our sister pulled over by a policeman, because (unbeknownst to her) we were tossing rotten pears out the back window.
Even though our dad had landed at Normandy and served as an Army medic in Europe, he bought one of the earliest VW Beetles. In it, we somehow took a vacation trip to Washington D.C. with my little brother riding the whole trip in the “back-back” (the luggage compartment behind the back seat). This was before seat belts and child safety seats.
Not long afterward, Pop bought a used VW Minibus (the first minivan, despite Chrysler’s claim to the contrary). One fateful day, while joy-riding in it after getting my license, I seized the engine somewhere out beyond Duanesburg.
My single-man cars
When I was 14, a buddy of mine and I bought a beat-up ‘53 Chevy for $35 that we drove around and around in an empty field his family owned. It always smelled a little funny, but at least I learned to drive a standard transmission.
In order to commute to college, Pop bought me (second or third-hand) one of the tiniest two-seater sports cars ever made, an old Austin-Healey Sprite. It was Pepto Bismol Pink and sported plastic side windows you attached to the doors with thumbscrews, a convertible top that you folded up by hand and stuffed into the trunk and the infamous Lucas electrical system that guaranteed the car would be in the garage more than on the road. But geez, it was great fun to drive when it worked. Mom and Pop sold the car when I went into the Army. I forgive them.
When I came home from Vietnam, I bought a used VW Beetle for commuting to work and college. Old Beetles had air-cooled engines which may have been great for the German Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf 190, but in the cold winters of New York – not so much. Old Beetles had the worst heaters and defrosters in automotive history, and anyone who owned one remembers scraping frost off the inside of the windshield as they drove along.
Cars after marriage
My in-laws handed down their six-year-old 1963 Chevy Nova as a wedding present to my wife, Linda, and I. After the Beetle, this terrific little compact was a godsend. The heater worked.
Linda and I worked for a couple of years, and feeling financially flush, we bought the very first new car I ever owned. Advertised as “The First Sexy European for under $2,400,” it was an extremely cool 1971 Capri, imported by Mercury. Four-speed stick, rack and pinion steering, disc brakes, radial tires, bucket seats and the foxiest look of any car on the road, the Capri was absolutely wonderful fun to drive, when it wasn’t in the shop costing us money. But it did last until I finished grad school in ’76. A couple years later we handed the car down to my youngest brother who re-named it, “The Crapi”.
After a serial progression of used, economical Japanese cars and an old Ford Escort wagon we owned while building our careers and family, we bought yet another new car, a 1986 Buick Century. This seemingly out-of-character choice was occasioned by our wanting a bench seat so our young daughter could sit in front with us. I am loathe to confess that it is the last American car we have purchased. Although comfortable, the car was a never-ending source of breakdowns, costly repairs and large, hideous rust spots common to GM cars that year.
The Buick was followed by our final new car, a five-speed 1993 Mazda 626, which was followed by a used five-speed 1998 VW Jetta, both of which were terrific cars that far exceeded 100,000 miles, and were great fun to drive. Somewhere along the line we bought (for my wife) one of the oddest, cutest, most laughable vehicles we’ve ever owned–a turquoise 1994 Eagle Summit, which can be described only as a mini-minivan. If my buddies in the Army ever saw me in one of those, they would have laughed themselves silly and mocked me for all eternity.
Today’s love affairs
Someday, I hope we will buy another American car, but for the present our vehicles – all pre-owned -were chosen for reliability, practicality and downright fun (life is getting shorter after all). These are a 2007 Honda CRV-EXL, a red five-speed 1998 BMW 328i, and a seal gray five-speed 2002 Porsche Boxster. It is a bittersweet fact that all three number among the very finest cars I’ve ever owned. Come on, USA!
Ed. Lange writes “Guy Stuff” monthly for Capital Region Living. As a playwright, he is currently writing his 10th play. He may be reached at [email protected].